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La Sen Bistro Offers French Cooking with Vietnamese, Bay Area Influences

By S. Mathur

For Partner Thanh Dinh, La Sen Bistro has a simple outlook on food: "Cooking comes from the intuition, imagination, and passion for good food." This philosophy may reflect the experience of Chef Hai Nguyen, who had no culinary training at all, but a passion for food that he translated into two highly successful restaurants. Dinh says that Chef Nguyen "embarked on his culinary journey with very humble beginnings. He was neither raised as a chef, nor did he ever step foot into a culinary school. He did, however, have big dreams, and began setting them in motion when he migrated to the United States from Viet Nam."

In a retelling of the classic immigrant tale of hard work and talent winning out over adversity, Chef Nguyen began working as a dishwasher at La Cheval, a Vietnamese-French restaurant in the East Bay. He was promoted to table busser, and then to server. His first efforts in the kitchen were not promising, but he trained at home and kept an eye open for a chance to start a restaurant of his own. In 1997, he opened La Rose Bistro on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, which quickly became a favorite with theater aficionados, food connoisseurs, university professors and students.

The cooking style was French-Californian with some unique touches. Dinh says that Chef Nguyen "has an impressive ability to pull inspiration from different types of foods and weave them together with his own expertise and knowledge to come up with new concoctions and perfect them. His creativity and passion for food comes out with each and every plate." Critics, including the Michelin guide, discovered and acclaimed the food at La Rose.

Recently La Rose Bistro migrated to Concord, within driving distance of San Francisco, and was renamed La Sen Bistro. Dinh explains that "In the Vietnamese language, La Sen means "lotus leaves," but it also represents a deeper meaning. We aim to encompass a type of French cooking that has no defined borders and seamlessly marries influences of the French, the Vietnamese, and the diversity of the Bay Area."

The menu includes traditional French favorites: French Onion soup, Duck Confit, Coq au Vin, and Beef Bourguignon. Dinh reports that the most popular dishes are the Grilled Lamb Chop served with port wine reduction sauce, and the duck confit with Madeira sauce, mushrooms, potato gratin & ratatouille: "However, what we get praised on over and over is our complimentary Garlic and Cilantro Sauce served with warmed Ciabatta bread."

La Sen Bistro also has a cookbook of its own, published by Savory Books, entitled "La Sen Bistro: The Cookbook". The book includes recipes for many of the items from the menu. Dinh believes that the San Francisco Bay Area, with its diverse scenery and cultures is a good place to open a restaurant because it has a lot to offer anyone and everyone: "The Bay Area culinary scene offers a rich tapestry of flavors, colors and scents with influences from all over the globe."

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